By Robert Horvat
The success Australian wine has received over the years is amazing. It, of course, is cyclic depending on things like droughts, floods and pests. In its infancy there were serious doubts about its viability, which was noted in the 1864 edition of Wine, the Vine and the Cellar by English wine merchant T.G. Shaw. He wrote, “So far as I can learn, Australia is not well adapted, either by soil or climate, for growing wine and this opinion seems confirmed by the unsuccessful efforts of many years.” If only Shaw had a crystal ball to see how far Australian winemakers have come today, to be one of the world’s preeminent producers and exporters of wine.
Australia’s reputation as one of the world’s leading wine exporter, as I have hinted, didn’t happen overnight. In the last thirty years or so, Australia’s modern wine making industry embarked on an aggressive export strategy in an attempt to win over new consumers. Underlining its success is an innate appreciation of consumer tastes. Furthermore, with an abundance of choice and quality wine that is affordable, it is no wonder why Australian bottles are beating the world’s best. Though Australians cannot seriously claim all the accolades that are thrown at them without acknowledging the skills and knowledge handed down to them from early pioneers from various parts of Europe. The viticulture of Europe is very much entwined with the legacy of over two centuries of wine making in Australia. From it has sprung an amazing range of original wine styles from Margaret River in Western Australia to the Nagambie Lakes Region of Central Victoria.
The tower of Tahbilk Winery is one of the classic sights of the Nagambie Lakes wine country.
The first vines in Australia can be traced back to the arrival of the first fleet in 1788 around Botany Bay. Some say that these first vines failed miserably because vine cuttings, like many of the first European settlers, struggled to adapt to their new surroundings. Nevertheless, from these first few vines, an industry grew.
Many early wine enthusiasts have been credited in helping lay the foundations for Australia’s wine industry, which included men like John Macarthur, Gregory Blaxland and James Busby. Busby in particular, often referred to as “the father of the Australian wine industry,” brought back a host of vine cuttings from France and Spain, which included favourites like Pineau Chardonnay and Pineau Noir. Out across in the west of Australia, botanist Thomas Walters was the first to plant vines in the Swan Valley in 1829. Despite its isolation in the West from the rest of the country, winemaking in the small south-west pocket of Western Australia is regarded today as world-class. Often when you think of Australia, images of harsh weather and heat come to mind. This is true to some degree but the areas around the Swan Valley, the Great Southern and the Margaret River are considered near perfect conditions for wine growing. Furthermore, this amazing environment provides some of the best Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet blends.
The Barossa Valley, settled by German immigrants, is one of the most important regions in Australia’s wine history.
A little closer to home, in my home state of Victoria, vineyards started to grow at an alarming pace to almost rival the rush for gold in places like Ballarat, Rutherglen and Bendigo in the 1850s. The dream of creating “liquid gold” was no more evident than in Tahbilk, which lies in the Nagambie Lakes Region of central Victoria. The Tahbilk winery was established in 1860 and within a period of twenty years had quickly established itself as the “largest, most modern and successful winery in the colony.” Arguably one of the first to truly take advantage of its success, it embarked on exporting wine to Europe, in turn winning over wine drinkers of Europe and at the same time winning international awards. Although famous for its Shiraz planted in 1860, it produces also an amazing Marsanne and Cabernet Sauvignon, but one of my favourites would still have to be Tahbilk’s Merlot.
Arguably, Australia’s most celebrated and world’s renowned wine region has to be the Barossa Valley in South Australia. Though before the outbreak of the Phylloxera louse in 1877, discovered near Geelong in Victoria, South Australian vineyards ran a distant second to its rivals across in the East. Having escaped the outbreak in South Australia, the Barossa Valley in particular would usurp the crown of Australia’s premier wine region. By 1930, it was producing three-quarters of all Australian wine thanks to the heritage and skill of German immigrants who settled in the Barossa in the 1850’s. One of the great success stories of Australian wine comes out of South Australia’s Penfolds Estates. It was here that wine visionary, Max Schubert of Penfolds in 1951 created the Grange Hermitage, based on Shiraz (Syrah) grapes after his visit to French wineries. The Grange was ruthlessly trashed by critics, but to Schubert’s determination he persisted in producing and promoting his wine. In time, the Grange Hermitage won over critics and today can easily command upwards of $600+ for vintage bottles. Even the lower priced affordable bottles of Penfolds are great buys at around the $70-100, but I have to admit they are still a little beyond my budget.
Coonawarra, another important South Australia wine region, is definitely worth a look (and a taste!)
Still within South Australia, anyone interested in visiting vineyards other than in the Barossa Valley, have to spend some time in the Coonawarra Region. The wines from Coonawarra in particular have developed a reputation for producing great fine wines. These wines are grown in an environment not to dissimilar to Bordeaux.
There is so much more I would like to tell the reader about Australian wine from other regions that I have not yet mentioned. I can envisage this being a series that we can revisit for another day. Though what I will briefly tell you about Australian tastes for wine is that, red wine has always been a favourite here. There was a while in the 1970s when a glut of red wine changed drinking habits and white wines became fashionable. (I still love a nice chilled fruity white wine in summer.) Over the last few decades trends have reversed and old favourites like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are back in demand. In this modern world of ours ‘new world wines’ from not only Australia but places like the United States and Argentina, for instance, will continue to grow in popularity and will undoubtedly continue to win prestigious awards worldwide, as did Australian wines in 2013.
Though there is a little story that I would like to leave the reader with about condescending attitudes Australian wines have had to endure over its short history. In the year 1873, during the Vienna Exhibition, Australian wine producers beat the world’s best winemakers. Some French judges praised some wines from Victoria but upon here that it was from Australia withdrew their praise in protest. Apparently it also caused some of the French judges to walk out in disgust. The assumption was that one of their wines would be picked as the world’s best. I would like to think that those old stereotypes that good wine only comes from Italy and France will one day cease. I think we are all grown ups nowadays!